Lady Saw: she came, she saw

Garry Steckles becomes a Lady Saw fan at the St Kitts Music Festival

Lady Saw (Marion Hall). Photograph courtesy VP Records

Two things dawned on me the other day as I soaked up the music and the vibes at the 11th annual St Kitts Music Festival.

First, and perhaps most important, that I was wrong—was I ever wrong—to have joined the ranks of the sceptics when the festival, of which I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter since its infancy, was moved last year from its original home.

Second, that Lady Saw, the XXX-rated queen of Jamaican dancehall music, whose live shows I’ve avoided like the bubonic plague for more than a decade now, is a compelling and often profound stage performer. Wrong again, Steckles.

Before expounding on the merits of the festival’s new venue, the Warner Park cricket ground in the heart of Basseterre, St Kitts’ beautiful and historic capital, some thoughts on Lady Saw and a few of the other performers who shared the stage with her on the only night of the three-day festival I was able to attend this year.

I’d taken a pass on a bunch of previous opportunities to catch Lady Saw live, partly because of an aversion to high-decibel profanity, partly because a little dancehall goes a long way with this particular reggae fan, and partly because some of the audience she traditionally attracts can get—how should we put this?—a tad over-excited, and I’ve dodged enough bottles and other flying missiles at music and sporting events over the past few decades to last several lifetimes.

The St Kitts festival, with its no-nonsense security at every entry point, seemed like the ideal opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about. And when Lady Saw hit the stage, it quickly became apparent that the fuss is about a multi-talented artist who somehow manages to combine the crudest of language with a touching vulnerability and to use dancehall not only to excite but to educate.

The bad-girl image that has been her trademark for much of her career, it turns out, is just that: an image. The truth is, Lady Saw, on stage, uses dancehall, the music of choice for the past couple of generations of young people in the Caribbean, as a vehicle to get her message across to as wide an audience as possible. And, despite the often outrageous aspects of her live performance—her references to anatomy are not what you’d find in a medical journal—her message is both positive and uplifting.

She’s also got a superb voice, and is every bit as much at home with a classic reggae ballad as raw dancehall. She won over my flinty heart in a flash, and—if the venue’s right and the security’s tight—I can’t wait to see her again, preferably as a headline act rather than halfway though a crowded festival line-up and with an abbreviated time slot.
Which brings us, not coincidentally, to a few observations on the headliner that particular evening, Sean Paul.

He was, not to mince words, the most abysmal stage performer I’ve ever seen. The fact he was the headline attraction was a cultural travesty, but it did have one saving grace: with no one following him, I was among the hundreds able to flee the confines of Warner Park without worrying that we’d be missing something worthwhile later in the evening.

I managed to endure three numbers—OK, two and a half—all without a semblance of melody, in the course of which Paul jumped around a bit, attempted to sing, clearly not one of his strong points, and left me wondering how on earth he’s managed to become one of the most commercially successful acts ever to emerge from the Caribbean.

Earlier in the evening, by way of contrast, we’d been treated to a performance by another Jamaican male artist, this time one I’d wanted to catch up with since the Seventies, and who exceeded even my high expectations. Pluto Shervington trotted out hit after hit after hit—Ramgoat Liver, Your Honour, Dat, I Man Born Ya, Dis Ya Hard Time Can’t Last, I Man Bitter, the list goes on—with consummate professionalism and the sort of easy-going, yard-style charisma that’s a hallmark of veteran Jamaican performers. He was a delight from beginning to end.

Which brings us, again not coincidentally, to the other star of the evening: the venue.
When St Kitts’ Minister of Tourism, Richard “Ricky” Skerritt, made the landmark decision last year to move the festival to the Warner Park cricket ground from its traditional venue, the sprawling grounds of the Fort Thomas Hotel, I was among those who thought he’d got it wrong. Why fix something that isn’t broken, I wondered. And why put on a music festival at a venue that’s been designed specifically for cricket?

I couldn’t have been further off the mark. Warner Park, which was rebuilt from the ground up when St Kitts was named one of the venues for this year’s Cricket World Cup, turns out to be the finest venue I’ve ever been in for live music.

It’s quite beautiful, and the facilities are modern and classy. It has thousands of comfortable seats. Splendid corporate boxes. Vast expanses of greenery. And, perhaps most important of all, the acoustics are fine and it’s got a warm, homely ambiance that’s very, very Caribbean.

It’s a venue that I’m hoping will encourage the festival, with its eclectic, something-for-everyone format, to set its sights on bringing in the biggest of international megastars. I left the park with visions dancing in my head of Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, the Stones or Elton John attracting thousands of music fans from all over the world to the island I’ve called home for the past 14 years.

Over to you, Ricky…..